The History of the Vienna Philharmonic
BeginningsUntil the first Philharmonic concert on March 28, 1842, the city which gave its name to the Viennese classics - Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven - had no professional concert orchestra. Concerts of symphonic works were played by ensembles specially assembled for the occasion. Orchestras composed entirely of professional musicians were found only in the theaters. The logical step of playing a concert with one of these orchestras was taken at the end of the 18th century, when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart engaged the orchestra of the Vienna Court Theater for a cycle of six concerts in 1785. Ludwig van Beethoven also engaged this ensemble on April 2, 1800 for a concert in which he premiered his first symphony. On May 24, 1824 the orchestra of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of the Friends of Music) and the court orchestra joined forces with the court opera orchestra for the premiere of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Despite these promising beginnings, however, the largest and finest ensemble in Vienna only managed to become an organizer of classical symphonic concerts in a very roundabout way. The Bavarian composer and conductor Franz Lachner, conductor at the court opera theater from 1830, played symphonies by Beethoven in the intervals of ballet performances. From these experiments to the court opera orchestra's first entrepreneurial activities was only a small step, and in 1833 Lachner founded the Künstler-Verein for this purpose. However, the society disbanded after only four concerts due to organizational shortcomings.
The Birth of the Vienna Philharmonic: Otto NicolaiOtto Nicolai (1810-1849) was appointed conductor at the Kärntertortheater in 1841. Encouraged by influential figures of Vienna's musical life, he revived Lachner's idea and on March 28, 1842 conducted a "Grand Concert" in the Großer Redoutensaal which was presented by "all the orchestra members of the imperial "Hof-Operntheater". This "Philharmonic Academy", as it was originally called, is rightly regarded as the origin of the orchestra, because all the principles of the "Philharmonic Idea", which still apply today, were put into practice for the first time:
Only a musician who plays in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (originally Court Opera Orchestra) can become a member of the Vienna Philharmonic
The orchestra is artistically, organizationally and financially autonomous, and all decisions are reached on a democratic basis during the general meeting of all members.
The day-to-day management is the responsibility of a democratically elected body, the administrative committee.
Thus, even before the political events of 1848, a revolutionary policy was adopted - democratic self-determination and entrepreneurial initiative undertaken by an orchestra as a partnership - which laid the foundations for technically and musically superior performances of classical symphonic works. Of course, this was only the beginning. The association of musicians would suffer serious setbacks and learn painful lessons before it finally achieved true stability.
The Philharmonic Subscription Concerts
When Otto Nicolai left Vienna permanently in 1847, the young enterprise almost collapsed, having lost in one person not only its artistic but also its administrative leader. Twelve years of stagnation followed before a new innovation brought about the long-awaited change of fortune. On January 15, 1860, the first of four subscription concerts took place in the Kärntnertortheater under the baton of then opera director Carl Eckert, and since that time, the "Philharmonic Concerts" have been staged without interruption. The only significant change in all those years was to switch from having one conductor for a complete season of subscription concerts to the present system of having various guest conductors within a season, as the following chronology demonstrates:
1860 - Carl Eckert
1860 - 1875 Otto Dessoff
1875 - 1882 Hans Richter
1882 - 1883 Wilhelm Jahn
1883 - 1898 Hans Richter
1898 - 1901 Gustav Mahler
1901 - 1903 Joseph Hellmesberger jun.
1903 - 1908 guest conductors
1908 - 1927 Felix von Weingartner
1927 - 1930 Wilhelm Furtwängler
1930 - 1933 Clemens Krauss
since 1933 guest conductors
Under the leadership of Otto Dessoff (1835-1892) the repertoire was consistently enlarged, important organizational principles (music archives, rules of procedure) were introduced and the orchestra moved to its third new home. At the beginning of the 1870/71 season it began playing in the newly built Goldener Saal in the Musikverein building in Vienna, which has proved to be the ideal venue, with its acoustical characteristics influencing the orchestra's style and sound.
The "Golden Age": Hans RichterUnder Hans Richter, the legendary conductor of the premiere of Wagner's tetralogy "The Ring of the Nibelungen" in Bayreuth, the Vienna Philharmonic finally established itself as an ensemble of world renown and unique tradition. This was helped through its associations with Wagner, Verdi, Bruckner, Brahms, Liszt and others, all of whom performed with the orchestra, either as conductors or soloists. During Richter's tenure, which has become known as the "Golden Age", Brahms' 2nd and 3rd, as well as Bruckner's 8th Symphony were premiered.
The Early 20th Century
The Vienna Philharmonic performed abroad for the first time at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900 with Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) conducting. The orchestra, officially recognized by the Austrian government as an association in 1908, did not start touring with any regularity until 1922 under Felix von Weingartner, who led the orchestra as far afield as South America.
The Philharmonic's close relationship to Richard Strauss, of course, is of great historical importance, and represents one of the many high points in the rich history of the orchestra.
Further musical highlights were artistic collaborations with Arturo Toscanini from 1933 to 1937, and Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) who, despite the departure from the one subscription concert conductor system, was in actuality the main conductor of the orchestra from 1933 to 1945, and again from 1947 to 1954.
The Era of National Socialism
In 1938, politics encroached upon Philharmonic activity in the most brutal way. The National Socialists dismissed all Jewish artists from the Vienna State Opera and disbanded the association of the Vienna Philharmonic. It was only the intervention of Wilhelm Furtwängler which achieved the nullification of the disbandment order and saved the "half-Jews" and "closely-related" from dismissal and persecution. However, the Vienna Philharmonic mourned the murder of six Jewish members in the concentration camps as well as the death of a young violinist on the eastern front.
After World War IIAfter World War II the orchestra continued the policy it began in 1933 of working with every conductor of repute. Especially important in the history of the orchestra after 1945 were the artistic collaborations with its two honorary conductors Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan, and with its honorary member Leonard Bernstein.
Through its busy concert schedule, recordings on film and record, tours all over the world, and regular appearances at major international festivals, the Vienna Philharmonic meets all the requirements of the modern multimedia music business while still managing to emphasize its unique individuality, perhaps best exemplified in the annual New Year's Concert, and in the pivotal role it plays each summer at the Salzburg Festival. Although the orchestra has moved with the times, it remains faithful to traditional principles by retaining its autonomy and the subscription concert series as the artistic, organizational and financial basis of its work.
The Vienna Philharmonic is not only Austria's most highly coveted "cultural export", it is also an ambassador of peace, humanity and reconciliation, concepts which are inseparably linked to the message of music itself. In 2005 the Vienna Philharmonic was named Goodwill Ambassador of the World Health Organisation (WHO). For its artistic achievements the orchestra has received numerous awards, gold and platinum disks, national honors, and honorary membership in many cultural institutions.
- Prof. Dr. Clemens Hellsberg